Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. Cops on Film

 

cop-camera3As America is yet again riveted on a controversial police shooting, one thing that keeps coming up in the discussion is the subject of police cameras. Ricochet’s Own Troy Senik mentioned it in his thoughtful post on the tragedy of Ferguson, and it seems to be an article of faith, in particular among more libertarian-leaning precincts of the Right: “You want to solve this? Body cameras for cops. Done.”

I have seen this point bandied about a lot in the past week. And while I agree with the overall point, I feel I must offer a word of caution: people see these cameras as argument-ending panaceas, and they are not.

I was recently in the testing program for a number of wearable camera systems my department is looking at, during which time I frequently felt like the DP on the world’s stupidest documentary. I generally liked having them, and I’m eager to get one issued (the bureaucrats are currently hashing out which system to buy). But they are not without their issues, and a great many people seem unaware of them.

For one, their battery life and storage capacity is not unlimited (one model would drain itself completely about halfway through the shift), and they tend to cut out at inopportune moments. The video quality is often poor, particularly in low light (when the vast majority of officer-involved shootings occur). The audio is similarly limited. When reviewing my footage, anything I said was generally pretty clear, but what people said to me — particularly if they were chemically impaired or agitated — was not.

Something clipped to the uniform of an officer that is running or fighting is not going to give you the nice clear video you see at the GoPro site. They bounce, they wobble, and in close up fights the field of view is too tight to see anything. Filmmakers invented the Steadicam for a reason.

http://youtu.be/wZlafT4nmSI?t=4m42s

Shoulder-mounted cameras don’t anchor properly and dip forward or back where they can’t see anything. Chest mounted cameras can be blocked when an officer is aiming his sidearm. Headband mounted cameras can get knocked off fairly easily.

In situations where the precise thing someone said — or the precise moment someone saw something — becomes crucially important, these videos may hurt as much as help. Along with muddled, inconclusive witness statements and inconclusive autopsies, we can now add muddled, inconclusive video footage. It’s just going to become one more thing for people to litigate with their preconceived narratives.

And the oft-expressed libertarian fantasy about cameras that are ALWAYS ON is just that. In addition to the battery issues noted above, there are privacy concerns with these things that are just beginning to be explored. No problems walking around in public, but what happens when an officer responds inside someone’s home? Or has to search a suspect’s clothing? Or goes to an injured party call in a women’s locker room? What about correctional settings? What if an officer gets a personal phone call from his wife while on duty? What happens if the person the officer is speaking with requests to have the camera turned off? (It happens).

The answers to these questions aren’t clear-cut. But it seems like a lot of people advocate cameras without even considering them. It seems particularly odd to see people who complain about surveillance cameras in public places advocating turning every police officer into a walking, talking surveillance camera.

Smile!

Image Credit: Twitter user Ofc. Mike Bossman.

There are 12 comments.

  1. Little Ricky Cobden Inactive

    How are undercover officers supposed to operate with a camera in tow? 

    You point out many problems with cameras. In many cases the answer is that the technology isn’t available at this time for all officers to video their entire time on patrol. Over time the technology will improve. At present cameras are everywhere and will only become more omnipresent.

    In the past decade there have been many cases where police officers have stopped members of the public from filming them doing their duty. In many cases officers have destroyed the recorded information without any warrant authorizing them to do so. 

    Video capture has the potential to vindicate the actions of officers as well as build confidence with the public. When officers choose to confiscate or destroy video taken by the public they undermine their own authority. Surely we can agree that such censorship is within the discretion of a judge, not an officer in the field.

    • #1
    • August 18, 2014, at 3:39 PM PST
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  2. Aaron Miller Member

    Thanks for the perspective.

    • #2
    • August 18, 2014, at 3:39 PM PST
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  3. jmelvin Member

    As you point out Wylee Coyote, just like any other change made to solve a problem, body mounted cameras and recording devices introduce a whole new set of potential problems that must be considered. Although I’m not used to wearing video equipment, I and many others I know who have seen and experienced abuses by law enforcement against lawful gun carriers have taken to the use of digital voice recorders in daily life. The choice of equipment and placement can make a large difference in what is picked up, but it also makes one aware of their every statement in public, since the recording device intended to clear one’s good name and record threats and hostilities that would otherwise not be provable can also pick up topics of discussion that are intended to be about private matters, even when spoken in public. This is not necessarily a large problem for the average personal user who can stop a recorder or easily delete a file, but a policeman who needs to attend to family matters on the phone occasionally might not want that family conversation held in the “privacy” of his patrol car to be part of public record. That is certainly a reasonable concern that would need to be addressed.

    Useful high definition video feeds will likely be very limited without vast sums of money being spent, however good audio can be achieved at a much lower expense and may be a practical accessory to lower quality video, if video is used at all. Although the potential for constant surveillance is a reality many of us would be perfectly content to do without, we must recognize the usefulness of the technologies to keep others accountable, or to clear the names of those held in the public’s trust.

    Although high profile cases such as this in Ferguson, MO or the George Zimmerman case aren’t a daily reality, lesser ones occur with enough frequency that I’m surprised personal recording equipment is not in more widespread use. The judicious use of recording technologies has the potential to clear names that need to be cleared and sully those that need it.

    • #3
    • August 18, 2014, at 3:45 PM PST
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  4. Doug Watt Member

    I see nothing wrong with camera use but when an officer is called to take a sexual assault report the camera would have to be turned off. The other problem that could occur would be an officer having to write a separate report on why he/she chose to turn a camera off. Or than there is this.

    • #4
    • August 18, 2014, at 4:03 PM PST
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  5. Wylee Coyote Member
    Wylee Coyote Post author

    Little Ricky Cobden: When officers choose to confiscate or destroy video taken by the public they undermine their own authority. Surely we can agree that such censorship is within the discretion of a judge, not an officer in the field.

     Absolutely. There are some circumstances where officers can demand a copy of a video (if it contains evidence), but certainly not delete or destroy it. What I have heard is that if someone is unwilling to provide you with a copy of their footage, you can seize the camera, which must be placed in evidence and a warrant obtained to get the video.

    My preferred method is to just ask. In one case, the guy deleted the video himself in front of me, after I told him I wanted it to prosecute his friend. In another, the citizen eagerly agreed to provide the video (“I’m on y’all’s side with this one. That dude is crazy!”), but unfortunately I got tied up dealing with the prisoner and by the time I went to give him an email address, he had left the scene. :(

    • #5
    • August 18, 2014, at 4:06 PM PST
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  6. Wylee Coyote Member
    Wylee Coyote Post author

    jmelvin:

    Useful high definition video feeds will likely be very limited without vast sums of money being spent, however good audio can be achieved at a much lower expense and may be a practical accessory to lower quality video, if video is used at all. 

     Your point about technology marching on is a fair one, and the cameras will only get better. Still, at this time there are significant limits that a lot of people don’t seem to anticipate, and any technology that gets roughly used in a tactical situation is going to have problems (just ask anyone in the military).

    Interesting point about using a separate digital recorder for sound, though I imagine syncing it with a separate video unit would be a minor nightmare.

    • #6
    • August 18, 2014, at 4:14 PM PST
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  7. jmelvin Member

    I can’t readily see your link Doug (due to work restrictions), but you’re spot on about the need to disable video for the privacy of those interacting with police, as necessary.

    Wylee Coyote, some of the synchronizing issues could likely resolved through the use of a hand clap occasionally performed within “eyeshot” and “earshot” of the video equipment, along with a verbal note that a sync clap was being performed to allow for easier synchronization.

    Something like this would be pretty easy to do. “This is my sync clap at 7:22 PM” Clap!
    Since most voice recorders have a time and date setting, it would be pretty easy to verify the timing of this event.

    • #7
    • August 18, 2014, at 4:23 PM PST
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  8. Concretevol Thatcher

    I don’t know Wylee, being filmed at my job all day every day sounds like reason #23,456 why I couldn’t be a cop. Man that would suck. I do too much stupid stuff….

    • #8
    • August 18, 2014, at 4:31 PM PST
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  9. Leigh Member

    I heard someone discussing cameras earlier this summer (in reference to a game, not to a legal situation) who pointed out, accurately, that film is two-dimensional. Cameras can play tricks on us — it can look like something happened that didn’t, an unfortunate tip of the head or wobble of the arm can make something harmless suggestive of something far different. And that’s innocent; someone who knows how can shield themselves.

    They might yet serve the cause of justice, on balance, but there needs to be caution.

    • #9
    • August 18, 2014, at 4:38 PM PST
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  10. jmelvin Member

    Concretevol:

    I don’t know Wylee, being filmed at my job all day every day sounds like reason #23,456 why I couldn’t be a cop. Man that would suck. I do too much stupid stuff….

    Come to work in a nuclear power plant or a nuclear materials assembly facility and you get used to it really quickly. Then again, it does help one evaluate the pranks you might play even in office areas.

    • #10
    • August 18, 2014, at 4:48 PM PST
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  11. Wylee Coyote Member
    Wylee Coyote Post author

    Concretevol:

    I don’t know Wylee, being filmed at my job all day every day sounds like reason #23,456 why I couldn’t be a cop. Man that would suck. I do too much stupid stuff….

     One of the supervisors I work with told me that anytime the camera was running while he was around, I was to warn him by working the words “pork chop” into the conversation.

    I suspect this was more for his own amusement than any other purpose.

    • #11
    • August 19, 2014, at 3:39 AM PST
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  12. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Another really unusual and useful post–between this post and Sabrdance’s Notes on Riot Control, we now have a far more useful (and diverse) set of “Ferguson” commentary than pretty much anyone else. Thanks for this, I learned a lot from it.

    • #12
    • August 19, 2014, at 11:12 AM PST
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